Maximized Performance

Alumnus and current graduate student David McNeill is one of the best long-distance runners in the world. A native of Melbourne, Australia, McNeill represented his country in the 5,000-meter run in the 2012 Olympic Games. He also won the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 5,000-meter as a representative of Northern Arizona University. His successes, he says, have all followed a difficult decision he made four years ago: he wanted to be a student and an athlete, but couldn't do both in Australia. So he packed his bags for Flagstaff.

"In Australia, they don't have an integrated university and sporting system, so essentially they are two separate things," McNeill says. "In terms of combining the two, it was very difficult. The opportunities to travel and compete against the best were also lacking. I didn't know much about the U.S., so I hesitated before I decided to come here. After I made the choice to come, I haven't looked back. It was a really good decision.

According to McNeill, one of the best parts about coming to Flagstaff was the opportunity to maximize his performance as both a student and an athlete. His teammates, coaches, and the opportunity to train at high altitude have benefitted him as a runner, he says. Equally important to McNeill, though, is the emphasis on academics.

"Coming to NAU, I could study and run, and I had coaches that understood my school commitments and teachers who understood my sporting commitments," says McNeill. "There was just a good balance."

As an undergraduate student, McNeill excelled, earning a cumulative 3.75 GPA as an exercise science student. ESPN The Magazine recognized him as an Academic All-American for 2009-2010. But on the track, McNeill elevated himself far beyond his peers. The key to his success, he says, certainly depends on being physically prepared. For McNeill, though, mental preparation is a critical component to succeeding as a distance runner.

Building confidence

"Confidence is important going into a race—you need to have confidence in what you have done to prepare, and in the goals you have set," he says. "You have to have confidence in the goals that you set, and then focus on keeping those goals in mind. Relaxation is important as well. When you are relaxed, the confidence has somewhere to go."

According to McNeill, the support of his mentors at the university was key to building his confidence, both in and out of the classroom.

"Coach [Eric] Heins [recipient of the Big Sky Coach of the Year award] played a big role in preparing me physically and mentally," says McNeill. "I think a measure of a good coach is someone that you could consider a friend, and that is how I see Coach Heins. In the classroom, [exercise science professor] Dr. [James] Baldi is someone that has given me a wealth of confidence and a belief in what I am capable of academically. The future is always a daunting prospect, so to have someone that is aware of my particular need to plan out the future—it has been good to have people like him around."

McNeill graduated cum laude in 2010, and capped off a stellar undergraduate career as a Gold Axe Award winner. The Gold Axe recognizes outstanding student achievements and service to the university and community. After running in the London Olympics, he came back to Northern Arizona University in the fall of 2012 to begin his master’s degree in exercise physiology. McNeill says he still maintains “a close and cherished relationship with the Northern Arizona University cross country program.”